Fifty years ago this Friday, Lee Harvey Oswald peered through a sixth floor window of the Texas Book Depository building in Dallas Texas, pointed a rifle at President John F. Kennedy, and fired. The assassination of President Kennedy shook the nation more profoundly than any such act since Abraham Lincoln’s death in 1865. Not only was it the shooting of a president, something that hadn’t happened in 62 years, nor just the death of such a young president with a wife in her 30s and their small children; it also was the violent death of this particular president.
Less than three years earlier, Kennedy had been inaugurated with the line that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.” Now, the standard bearer of that new generation had been cut down in his prime. The hopes and dreams of many young Americans who believed in a bright future symbolized by the young, energetic president were shattered. Not only was a president lost on November 22, 1963, but so was America’s trust.
The Kennedy assassination was the beginning of a new era of American society – an era characterized by public disillusionment. Within the next five years after Kennedy’s death two more respected national leaders – Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy – were shot down at a young age. Riots broke out in America’s big cities and violent crime rose. America poured billions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives into a failed war in Vietnam, the first the nation had ever lost. About the same time, the Watergate scandal ultimately led to the first resignation of a president.
According to Gallup surveys, since the early 1960s, public cynicism has increased. In the early 1970s, before the loss of the Vietnam war and Richard Nixon’s resignation, 42 percent of Americans said they had at least “quite a lot of confidence” in Congress. That figure has steadily declined over the past 40 years to 9 percent today. Yet, it isn’t just Congress that Americans have lost confidence in. Confidence in public schools is half what it was 40 years ago. Public confidence in newspapers has fallen from 40 percent to 23 percent. Forty years ago, 68 percent of Americans believed the media reported the news fairly and accurately. Today, that figure is only 44 percent. Even religion has suffered. Today, 48 percent of Americans express having quite a lot of confidence in religion, compared to 65 percent who felt that way 40 years ago.
However, Americans have directed much of their disillusionment at government. In 1964, 62 percent of Americans believed that the government in Washington does the right thing “most of the time.” By 2011, only 15 percent of Americans felt that way.
Can America’s trust be restored? Is it possible to return to an era when Americans believed in their government, as well as other institutions? Can confidence, once lost, be regained?
That confidence must be restored. If the cynicism that many Americans exhibit toward government, and other facets of life, is not curbed, we will be unable to solve the large-scale problems we face. The cause of our cynicism is not simply “bad government.” It also is a jaundiced view of the institutions that are necessary for our nation to move forward. That cynicism, and the pessimism it engenders, destroys our vision of a future that is brighter than today, as well as our willingness to work to make that future a reality.
If Americans can once again view their government and other institutions of public life positively, that optimism will increase our sense of civic duty and restore our belief in our greatness as a nation and a people. That is a daunting challenge for “a new generation of Americans.” But it is a legacy President Kennedy would be proud of.
Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.